Landmark boss climbed out of cellar but shed only his socks, not his past MAKING A STATEMENT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gary Houston likes to leave an impression.

Mr. Houston, chairman and co-owner of Landmark Homes, wears Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren clothes and drives a black, two-door Mercedes 560 SEC. The front door to his home -- a large Colonial in the Monkton Farms community in Maryland horse country -- opens onto a two-story foyer with a 3-foot-high silk bouquet of flowers on a green marble stand beneath a three-layer, 6-foot golden chandelier.

"I guess my hobby is that I spend a lot of money buying clothes. Bankers see me in my expensive suits with no socks and they remember me," said Mr. Houston, sitting in his home, wearing pleated and cuffed cream pants that just drape the top of his loafers and otherwise bare feet.

"You need to make a statement no matter what you do."

Take Landmark's $775,000, 7,200-square-foot entry in the homebuilders association's Dream Homes exhibition last month -- the model most reporters and visitors were enthralled with. The house -- the largest and most expensive in the show -- had a three-story red plastic tube slide, a 6-foot sand castle with fish pond, a front-yard putting green and back-porch driving range, and a thinstone grotto bath with a shower waterfall, wet bar, handpainted tigers and oversize iron frog.

In a room designed for a young boy, a mock blue-and-yellow biplane served as a bed. Across the hall, in the rock-a-bye-baby room, a cradle swung from a branch of a fake, ceiling-tall tree decorated with blue-and-white birds, a cat, dark green leaves, and purple flowers. The solarium had monkeys, lilacs and mourning doves handpainted on the moss green walls. And the kitchen had a built-in herb garden and a fireplace.

Visitors differed on whether Mr. Houston's inspiration was ideal -- some thought it playful, others ostentatious and impractical -- but they all agreed it stood out.

"Gary is a young, aggressive, innovative guy who wants to be one of the trendsetters in the housing market here in this area," said David R. Robbins, president of Architecture Collaborative Inc. in Baltimore and Landmark's architect. "Without doubt, he's an egomaniac. That doesn't mean I don't cherish the guy and enjoy working with him."

Mr. Houston is one reason why Landmark, based in Towson, is one of the state's fastest growing homebuilders, why it grew throughout the recession, and why it has risen to become one of the top residential builders in the Baltimore area since its founding in 1987.

Mr. Houston, 38, was the youngest of three children growing up in a rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore. His father was a jeweler at Hutzler's and his mother worked in a laundry. As a boy, Mr. Houston did not dream of building homes. Instead, he remembers himself as a poor student who loved to play ball, fiddle with art and wear fine clothes.

"I'm dumb as dirt, but God gave me a real style with myself," he said.

He dropped out of the Maryland Institute School of Art during orientation because he soon realized he was not one of the best. And he dropped out of Towson State University because he said he knew he would never finish in four years. Instead, Mr. Houston switched to Essex Community College and finished his associate's degree.

"My dad told me I backed out of things," he said. "I wouldn't play golf sometimes because I didn't want to do it if I was not the best. It's a missed opportunity. I don't want my kids like that. I want them to try all sports, and other things, to get the experience, just to get it."

Mr. Houston tried for years, starting in high school, to get a job at the phone company -- where his brother worked and where he would have had lifetime security. "I finally get the big interview, and they tell me I don't have enough computer skills. I'm sunk and I'll never be anyone, I thought," he remembers.

Needing a job, Mr. Houston took one with Ryland Homes, the largest homebuilder in Maryland, cleaning up the trash that falls to the basement during construction -- "I knew I had to work hard to get out of the basement," he jokes. He moved to another builder to become a supervisor and then back as production manager at Ryland. It was at Ryland that he met Richard S. Yaffe.

Mr. Houston grew restless at Ryland, and he and Mr. Yaffe struck a deal to found Landmark Homes over a pizza dinner in 1987 when both men were just 31 years old. Mr. Yaffe is the company's president.

Mr. Yaffe and Mr. Houston established a flexible division of duties. In general, Mr. Yaffe handles land deals, customer service and finances; Mr. Houston oversees production, model appearance and design.

After seven years, Mr. Houston said he has achieved his goal. "Buying a Landmark Home is making a statement," he said. "It's like buying Ralph Lauren clothes or a Mercedes. People feel that that makes a statement."

"Most builders are a tad more conservative," said Mr. Robbins, whose architectural firm works with about 100 builders in the Baltimore-Washington area. "Landmark is more at the cutting edge."

According to Mr. Robbins, Landmark's designs, on which he collaborates, create striking first impressions both outside and inside the house. Inside, they have imaginative staircases and two-story foyers. On the outside, they have gables, half-round windows and innovative window scapes and entry trim.

Landmark's designs are so popular, claimed Mr. Yaffe, that other builders are copying the company's blueprints to build their houses. Landmark is considering legal action, he said.

At least a few other local builders have a different view.

"They have very good design, but honestly, it's not that unusual," said Bruce Scherr of Bruce Scherr Development Co., a homebuilder and developer.

But Mr. Houston insists otherwise, adding that he hopes his legacy is making Landmark homes, well, landmarks. He prefers his homes to be the largest in any development and held off shrinking Landmark's models to make them more affordable for fear they would lack distinction, a delay he regrets.

Mr. Houston said he left Ryland because he wanted control. "Who was I? I was nobody. They had architects and others who designed houses. This was an opportunity to see if I was ready. I really wanted to see if I could do it."

But it still took convincing, including from his wife, Robin.

"My father would have done well if he had started a business, but he was cautious like I am," Mr. Houston said. "When we started Landmark, my mother and Robin said I should do it. My partner Rick said I should do it. I wasn't sure. Me, I am more like my father. I give up if I am not sure of it."

Mr. Houston -- whose parents were in their 40s and whose brothers were in their teens when he was born -- talks fondly of his father.

"I try to be a good father, as he was," he said. "He had arthritis and was barely able to walk, but he still would sit down and play cowboys and Indians with me."

Mr. Houston's father died of a heart attack at Mr. Houston's wedding after suffering for years from arthritis.

"He asked me if I minded if he wore his bedroom slippers to my wedding. Normally I would say yes, because I care a lot about clothes and how things look, but I said no, I didn't mind." Mr. Houston said.

"We went through the ceremony, and the first dance, when he was asking my mother to dance, he had a heart attack."

Despite his success, Mr. Houston does not want his children to follow in his footsteps. He has four children, from 4 to 13 years old.

"There's too much pressure. You are only as good as the last design. Other builders are always competitive," he said. "If you stop wanting to be the best, then you can forget it, you're washed up. That's a fear I have."

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